Wolves, Humans, and the Myth...


Jill Missal, Wolf Song of Alaska Volunteer

The precise origins of man's unusual fear of the wolf are obscure. The wolf is human's most feared animal, even though there has never been a verified account of a healthy wild wolf attacking and killing a human in North America. There have been many maulings caused by bears, and many a diver has experienced a shark attack, but never a wild wolf attack. So why are wolves so feared and hated? We can get some clues from our language.

To understand the modern wolf language, we must first explore the origins of the word wolf. Wolf can be traced to the ancient Indo-European wlqwos (please don't ask me how to pronounce that!). Wlqwos and its variant lubwos (pronounced lukos), Sanskrit urkas, Russian volk, Polish wilk, Czechoslovakian vlk, Serbo-Croat yak, Lithuanian Vicks, Latvian vilks, Albanian u'lk, and Armenian gail.

Lukos, in turn, produced the Latin lupus, French loup, Spanish lobo, and English lupin. Lubes is the root word for Iycanthropy, which is defined as having the characteristics of a wolf, such as a werewolf or wolfman. The Prehistoric Germanic word wulfaz evolved into wolf and the Swedish and Danish ulv.

This tells us a lot about where the words came from, but not why they inspire fear. Perhaps we should look at our own day-to-day language. It is full of derogatory expressions involving wolves. Common phrases include: "wolf down your food," "a wolf at the door," and "throw to the wolves." Such expressions reinforce the belief that wolves are ravenous, sly, and bloodthirsty. Even Hitler used wolves to inspire fear when he named his fleet of submarines the "wolf pack." How did the wolf gain this undeserving reputation? The most common origins of such phrases are fables and folk tales. There are almost three dozen Aesop's fables involving wolves, and none of them are flattering!

The expression "keep the wolf from the door" was coined in 1933 from The Three Little Pigs. In this story, the wolf has a double role: obviously as a predator, but more obscurely as a representation of hunger. Therefore, "to keep the wolf from the door" has come to refer to keeping hunger and starvation at bay.

To "throw to the wolves" once meant to divert attention from, as in the story of the young bride and groom who were flung from a fleeing sled to keep the pursuing wolves busy while the other occupants of the sled escaped. Another origin of this phrase is found in one of Aesop's fables, in which a nurse threatens to hand her charges over to a pack of wolves if they continued to misbehave. Today, this phrase is used to refer to being abandoned or dismissed to a bad fate.

Many people are familiar with "a wolf in sheep's clothing." This could be anyone who acts friendly or harmless but is truly deceitful. This phrase also has roots in an Aesop tale, in which a wolf dresses as a sheep to get close to the herd. The wolf is discovered, but, encumbered by his disguise and unable to run away, is killed by the farmer. The ancient origins of this phrase start with the work wise, which meant "an enemy posing as a friend." Aesop's tale warns that deceit would never succeed and "wolves" should not try to disguise themselves because they will soon be discovered. A surprising example of this phrase was found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in which Jesus warns of "false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves."

It wasn't until the 20th century that "wolf" can to mean a philanderer, but the root wise is the same. That expression led to "wolf call", "wolf whistle." and so on. Another popular tale courtesy of Aesop is The Boy Who Cried Wolf, from which we have borrowed the phrase "cry wolf" when we receive a false alarm.

Such tales and expressions are so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that we use them without questioning their accuracy. I certainly have never worried about being chased by a pack of wolves while hiking or camping; the only wild wolf I've ever seen ran away at the first hint of human's presence! No animal deserves the wolf's reputation. Perhaps by rethinking the language we use in everyday conservation we can do our part to bring the real facts to light.

Next, we'll look at the results of eons of superstition and fear. Now do normal, modern city dwelling people look at wolves and why? We'll take a trip to Hollywood to explore some modern cultural references involving the wolf. Aesop wasn't the only one who could tell a tale!